I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my heroes recently, Mr Andrew Stafford who is the Author of PIG CITY which is essential reading for anyone who respects Music. In 2014 PIG CITY turns 10 and is being re-released. I’ve been a long time follower of Andrew’s work so it was an interesting insight for me as a writer. I’ve always respected Andrew’s passion for the music he writes about and the accurate way he has managed to describe so many artists that I’ve both loved and hated. To this day I still feel that having Andrew like anything you release as an artist is a badge of honour because he is such a dedicated follower of the arts and is the kind of music writer you can trust because he himself has such a wide vocabulary of tastes.
So here is the interview for you all – be sure to check out all the links and for anyone considering a career in writing or in music, you need to pick up a copy of PIG CITY and get fucking educated.
H&W: Your book “Pig City” traces the development of the Brisbane music scene from the early 70’s to the late 90’s giving a full history of the bands (both mainstream and underground), 4zzz, Punk Rock and of course the political climate across the three decades you cover. What was your first overall introduction to the Brisbane music scene and what was your initial spark to tell so thoroughly the story of Brisbane?
[AS]: Well, my parents moved up to Brisbane from Melbourne at the tail end of 1986, when I was 15, and I was just starting to get into punk (in particular) and all things rock & roll generally at that point. In fact my first great love musically was Midnight Oil, which was about as punk as things got for a teenager in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne at that time! They were a political awakening, as well as a musical one – I think it’s forgotten how important they were, really, especially since Peter Garrett went full time into politics. I saw them live and they took my head off.
In terms of Brisbane, it happened organically; I started going out and seeing bands here simply because that’s where I lived. I subscribed to 4ZZZ in the late 1980s; I went out there during the occupation in 1988, after the UQ Student Union tried to boot them off campus. As I got into punk, I became aware of the Saints, probably from seeing that legendary clip of them playing live at Paddington Town Hall (in Sydney) on Rage. And (I’m) Stranded, of course – that was a Rage staple.
I actually discovered Sydney’s Radio Birdman first – their T-shirts were everywhere in those days – though the Saints ended up having a far bigger impact on me. Of course, I’m talking about the original version of the band, with Ed Kuepper – they were way more raw and primal, and soulful, too, after they introduced the horns. Even so, I can’t remember owning Stranded (the album) until at least 1992, when I got my first CD player. I definitely had the Birdman record on vinyl well before that.
As for the Go-Betweens, they were all a little bit genteel for my tastes early on. I was a bit suspicious of anything that featured non-distorted guitars in those early days! So I never saw them in their classic period, either. I probably didn’t warm to them until around the early 1990s.
The original spark to tell the story came when I saw Savage Garden play the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000. I was just watching on television, of course, but I was gobsmacked and fascinated by it at the same time. I knew that like the Saints, they’d grown up in the boondocks (the Saints in Oxley/Inala; Savage Garden in Logan) and it seemed like a weird kind of circle for Brisbane to have turned. Plus I couldn’t resist the alliteration – From The Saints to Savage Garden! There was a book I really loved at the time about the New York scene called From The Velvets To The Voidoids, by Clinton Heylin – I don’t know if many people picked up how much I stole from him.
Plus and most importantly there was the whole political element of living in Queensland. It was only a few weeks after I arrived that the journalist Phil Dickie started writing the first of his reports in the Courier-Mail that led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry, which triggered Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s downfall. That was really formative stuff. Queensland was such an extreme place back then that it had the effect of instantly radicalising otherwise quite normal people.
H&W: Leading into writing of “Pig City” what was your experience with the Brisbane Music Scene and at what point did you start documenting it via your writing?
[AS]: Apart from just being a barfly who (in those days) didn’t actually drink, I got my writer’s training wheels as a staff writer for the street paper, Time Off, from early 1994 to late 1996, filling in as editor a few times when required. It was a good time to be there, because the Brisbane scene was exploding then; all the obvious bands you can think of (Powderfinger, Custard et al) were all coming through, but there were dozens of others – some of whom had more going for them, in my opinion, than the bands that “made it”. It was an incredible time to be in Brisbane, too, although it would be unrecognisable today. I moved to Sydney for a few years after that, and came back at the beginning of the year 2000. Personally I wasn’t in great shape by that point – I had no job and a lot of time on my hands, for all the wrong reasons. I needed a reason to be back in Brisbane, so I found one.
H&W: I want to focus on “The Saints” for a moment – after reading “Pig City” it is easy to tell that you are quite an avid fan of the band. A lot of the material contained in “Pig City” about “The Saints” is well researched and gives an incredible glimpse into the history of the band. How important were “The Saints” to not only you the Author but to the Brisbane Music Scene as a whole?
[AS]: I’ve answered that in terms of my own experience above. As far as Brisbane goes, it would be impossible to overstate their influence or importance. Sure, there were bands in Brisbane before that, and good ones too, but the Saints were the catalyst for pretty much everything that came afterwards. An entire scene formed in their absence after they left for England in 1977. With apologies to Railroad Gin, things were pretty dreary in Brisbane before that! Even though they didn’t call themselves a punk band, the fact was punk was such an important fulcrum for Brisbane in a volatile climate, and the Saints were at the forefront of that. Speaking of which, internationally their importance is only occasionally recognised to the extent it should be: they were doing their thing before any of the English bands, and better than most of them, too. Basically they just took Brisbane by the scruff of the neck and shook the life out of it. Not that many people noticed at the time – they were the proverbial pebble in the pond, but the ripples didn’t take long to start spreading.
H&W: Talk us through your research for the book – was it a hard process in working who and what to include considering the vast amount of music produced by Brisbane?
[AS]: It didn’t seem that difficult at the time! I had a good idea of which bands I thought should be included and they seemed obvious enough. The thing is, there just weren’t that many groups that had really broken to a wider audience outside of Brisbane, and I didn’t want to write a parochial account that would only be of interest to people who lived here and had lived through it. That said, there were some legendary people whom hardly anyone even inside Brisbane had heard of that I wanted to include – Pineapples From The Dawn of Time, the Leftovers, the Parameters. Most people who never listened to Triple Zed have no idea where the title “Pig City” even comes from. Later on, of course, I got a lot of heat from people who were upset that I hadn’t included them, and complained that I wasn’t here and hadn’t lived through that time, etc, etc – which was true; at least up until the late 1980s.
My defence was always that I wasn’t trying to write an encyclopaedia of Brisbane music; that was never the point. It was supposed to be a book about Brisbane, and that’s quite different. Actually, what was difficult was tracking down all those Triple Zed employees for their recollections – but, this being Brisbane, there weren’t too many degrees of separation between them all, once I found the first few!
H&W: Are there artists and various people that you were unable to interview or who didn’t feel comfortable in participating in the project?
[AS]: Daniel Jones from Savage Garden was the only one I can remember actually flat out refusing. He just had no interest in it whatsoever. Everyone else was keen to talk, especially when I explained what the angle was. A lot of people who lived through the Bjelke-Petersen era still wear it like a badge of honour.
H&W: Did you find a common mood or creative state of mind exclusive to Brisbane linked in with all of the bands and artists you interviewed or do you think that the only common connector was the geography of it all?
[AS]: I don’t think geography had much to do with it at all actually, at least not if you mean the physical landscape. I reject utterly that there was ever a “Brisbane sound”, although there are a few who like to claim there was. At bottom I was trying to answer a question; to what degree did growing up in Queensland, and Bjelke-Petersen especially, influence the output of its writers, artists and musicians? The people I spoke to were more or less united in their opposition, but their responses to him varied enormously. These things are never as simple as people make out.
H&W: What was your relationship with the more mainstream artists like Savage Garden and Powderfinger, were you a fan of them or were they merely used as an example of just how successful Brisbane had become at producing some of the most important music in our cultural lexicon?
[AS]: The fact that they had become successful didn’t interest me particularly, although it did provide the book with something of a narrative arc. Their success was partly a by-product of the fact that their music was less insular and more outward-looking than almost everything that had come before it, and that told you a lot more about how far Brisbane had come, in my view. I admired both bands without especially being a fan. Powderfinger’s early records aren’t great and they’re the first to admit it, which is something I respect about them. They really nailed what they were about with Odyssey Number Five; that’s a good album. So is Vulture Street. They both get a spin in my house occasionally.
H&W: I guess focussing on those bands – Powderfinger and Savage Garden – for a moment, do you think their success and the launching pad for Brisbane as a cultural hit of sunshine is the end result of the hard work done by all of those lesser known underground bands of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s who really pushed through the political intensity in order to pave the way for the modern music scene as we know it?
[AS]: Yes and no. Both were a case of right band, right songs, right time – as is the case for most successful outfits, but that’s not to downplay the incredible amount of hard work that went into their success. Powderfinger built on what came before them at least to some degree. They had to have an Orient Hotel to play at, just for starters. Savage Garden didn’t; they were pretty much a recording project that went straight to stadium stages, so they had no need for a local scene to nurture them. If they had played those smaller stages, they probably would have been bottled off! They owed more to George Michael and Michael Jackson than anything that had happened in Brisbane, and that’s not a criticism at all; that’s just who they were, and their music was a truthful expression of that. I can never understand why people bag them – they were as honest as the Saints, in their own way. Whether you happen to like their music or not in the end is a matter of taste and beside the point. People occasionally complain that they shouldn’t have been included in Pig City at all, but I was trying to write a history, not re-write it.
H&W: This year is the 10th anniversary of “Pig City” – what do you have planned in terms of a re-issue?
[AS]: Not much, in terms of actual content. There’s a new introduction that tries to put the book in context now that Campbell Newman is the state premier. Readers coming to the book for the first time will hear echoes of the past in the present; history sadly has a way of repeating itself. It’s definitely aimed at a new and younger audience. Other than that I’ve pretty much let it be. It’s not updated – the book was only ever meant to be a snapshot of a particular time; it’s not a rolling chronicle. Talking about all the new bands would be almost another book entirely, and I didn’t want to do that. One change I did make was to take out the discography at the back of the original edition, which was kind of a shame, but it had become obsolete in the age of Google, iTunes, eBay, etc.
H&W: In the past ten years since the release of “Pig City” how have you felt about the current scene of young musicians and bands? Do you think that there is substance amongst the modern scene and what do you think the Digital age has done to the Brisbane music community?
[AS]: I think it’s amazing; it’s better now than it ever was. The Saints and the Go-Betweens aside, most of my favourite Brisbane bands live in the present – HITS, Blank Realm, Some Jerks, Lords of Wong, Seja Vogel, Carrie and the Cut Snakes, Kellie Lloyd; every single one of them have or has made really cool records in the last couple of years. And I hope no one (especially my wife!) feels overlooked by my singling those people out. I think there’s more talent here now than at any time since the punk era, across a wider range of genres. People take a lot more chances, because they’re not answerable to anyone at the end of the day. For both better and worse, it’s actually more DIY than it ever was, because (a) record companies aren’t investing in young talent the way they used to, and (b) recording technology is so much cheaper these days, and people know how to use it properly. You can actually make a really good sounding album now for a few thousand dollars. The downside of course was ever thus: it’s all but impossible to make a living out of it. When I say it’s more DIY than ever, I mean bands have to do EVERYTHING. Most bands fall over at one or more hurdles.
I do think HITS and Blank Realm are both absolutely astounding. Both have made phenomenal albums this year. I’m happy to single them both out for special praise and anyone that is aware of my gig-going habits around town knows that. If I was lucky enough to live in New York City in the 70s I would go and see the Ramones every single fucking chance I could, too. I’m just happy to be in Brisbane as long as they’re around; we’re spoilt to have the two best bands in the country (in my opinion) on our doorstep. They are fabulous live bands; their records will last forever and happily they are all extremely nice people, too, so I know none of my babbling will affect them one iota.
H&W: As a writer in 2014, what kind of struggles do you face to keep up with the pace of technology and do you feel that the internet has helped or hindered the accurate documentation of history?
[AS]: Wow, you saved the toughest question until last there. I’m a bit of a Luddite I guess. I adopted Twitter a while ago, that’s pretty indispensable for a journalist, but I’ve only been on Facebook for a bit over a year. I hated the whole idea of it for a long time, but eventually I realised people weren’t going to stop using it just because I didn’t happen to approve. I didn’t get a so-called smart phone until well after they first appeared, either. It’s held me back in some ways compared to younger writers coming through. Overall, I’d describe myself as a late but enthusiastic bandwagon-jumper.
As for documenting history, the answer is both. The speed of it pretty obviously comes at the expense of both intellectual rigour and accuracy. On the other hand, it’s more accessible to a wider audience than it ever was. People are both more and less informed at the same time. Unfortunately they have a tendency to believe everything they read, and usually think they’re smarter than they actually are, too; probably myself included.
Interview Conducted By: Dan Newton
Andrew Stafford photo taken by Richard Waugh – http://richardwaughphotography.com.au/
On Saturday 9th August 2014 Andrew will be speaking at the Brisbane Powerhouse in relation to the 10th Anniversary of PIG CITY – you can check out the following link for more details